Ma is scrabbling up the trellis again. She has already cast off much of this world as extra weight, including me and Chao, her six-year-old grandson, but the muscle memory of climbing remains. As a little girl, she climbed trees faster and higher than all the boys. Once, she climbed a chimney to escape the Red Guards. “It was a long time ago. I don’t remember anything,” was all she would say when I asked.
Chao tells everyone about his Ah Po who can scale walls. He’s proud in the way that only children can be. Teachers praise his vivid dreams, making his lip button out in protest.
He watches Ah Po heaving herself along from his window, leaves it open at night so she can crawl through. As soon as I see her feet disappear over the ledge, I dart inside and upstairs to find them curled up together on the floor, Chao’s head tucked under her chin, her hair a puddle of milk in the moonlight.
When Ma isn’t climbing, she sits for hours, staring at the ceiling, wearing a necklace of spit. Chao perches beside her, cracking sunflower seeds, passing the kernels between her lips.
The doctor says it’s almost time.
I try to be ready, to compensate for how unready I have been for everything up to now. The stove left on – I learn too late the existence of automatic shut-off devices that could hush a wailing teakettle. The outbursts of anger – Ma has never hit me before and I don’t have it in me to pin her down. All I can do is wait until she tires. The wandering around – Lao Yee, the building super, knocks all the time, having figured out some way to corral Ma and coax her to come back. As he props Ma into a chair, I stand there, arms wrapped around my chest to keep from breaking into pieces. He whispers as he leaves, “Sorry.” I call someone to remove the trellis.
I have to tell Chao what will happen soon. I begin to give a speech about how our loved ones never truly leave us, the platitudes sticking to the roof of my mouth, only for him to interrupt and ask whether Ah Po will ever clamber through his window again. Taken aback, I say, “No,” and regret it immediately.
“I’ll leave it open just in case,” he says.
I kiss him good night, snuffle my face into the cave of his neck, making him wriggle. We tick through the list of mandatory bedtime questions: If you could have anything, what would you want for your birthday? What is your favorite food? Who do you love the most? On the last one, Ma and I keep trading positions, though I don’t mind when I come in second.
She has one last bout of lucidity – laughs at the absurdity of soap opera plotlines, brushes her hair, teaches Chao tricks for learning the multiplication tables. Lao Yee comes over, shakes her hand, calls her the great Ming Laoshi, to which she blushes and says how handsome he is, too bad she could be his mother. She suddenly remembers everything: how old I was when I lost my first tooth, that time Chao rode his bicycle into a bush and emerged with a cape of burrs, the roast duck she ate on her wedding night. She remembers the struggle sessions, broadsheets the size of windows covered in the names of the disgraced, how the Red Guards marched through the schools and gathered the textbooks and desks to burn, how they rounded up teachers to beat with belts, how she eluded them.
She tells me again and again about climbing the chimney. Jeering crowd below, rungs sweating underneath her palms, a thrumming urge to look down, to give in and lick the pavement, if not for the baby swaddled to her back.
Tonight, Chao wakes me up, his face full of an adult’s worry. I run outside to find her tangled up high, one foot caught in the lattice.
“Ma,” I shout. Ignoring me, she manages to work free and starts to climb again.